“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
The Middle East, selective outrage, double standards, invalidating behaviours and anti-racism; a reflection.
I feel as though with the current situation in the Middle East we are having another watershed moment. A moment that is providing us all with learning opportunities that we can ill-afford to miss out on. The classroom really is the best place for these conversations.
I want to take you back to 2006. As I gazed out the classroom window and my Geography teacher, who we will call, ‘Mr. O’ told us to turn to page 89 in our atlases. I repeatedly tried to make out the name of the country in the Middle East. “P-P-P-Palestine,” I said, which was met with the comment “get out of my room.” As my peers looked on in shock, I didn’t know what I did wrong. For the next two days, I spent my time exclusively in the school’s internal exclusion room, completing several statements and yet, no one had told me what I had done wrong. It wasn’t explained to my parents either, but I felt pressured to apologise for saying the name of a country. All these years on, still no explanation provided, I am seeing a vicious cycle of aggression and, well, ‘cancellations’ for mentioning Palestine.
The gravity of words.
Understanding the gravity of our words is so vital. Words can give and take life in equal measure. This cycle of silence and denial of world events prevents meaningful solutions, sustained dialogue and we have seen how silence leads to complicity. Similarly, how invalidating behaviours can make others cast doubt on their own emotions and experiences. Over the past two weeks or so, we have heard about simmering tensions in the Israel-Palestine region. With this very contentious topic, a common theme is a cycle where the only victory is disagreement. There have been casualties and fatalities in both countries. However, highlighting disproportionate aggression, calling for universal human rights and stating that a peaceful resolution is what is needed right now. Schools are in a very precarious position. In fact, the safeguarding implications that silencing conversations could cause are so enormous.
Let’s also make this very clear, we must condemn anti-Semitism at every given opportunity. It should not and will not be tolerated in our schools. All forms of discrimination are appalling and there is no excuse for it. By no means should anyone pardon it? With every interaction comes a learning opportunity and I believe right now, the time has come for educators to be brave and embrace a learning opportunity. Again, the classroom really is the best place for these conversations.
Hearing of schools expelling Muslim students for saying “Free Palestine” does exactly what? Seeing a Headteacher publicly call the Palestinian flag a “call to arms” and a symbol of anti-Semitism. But, just like the relations in the Middle East, this isn’t a black and white binary. Of course, we have those who conflate messages with their own racist tendencies and must be fully aware of this. Something is wrong here. We are losing valuable learning opportunities. This is a broken system that needs to be challenged. But, have schools stopped to ask:
Why do our young people feel this way?
Are we seeing young people as autonomous and arbitrators of knowledge in their own right?
Do all young people feel as though they are respected and listened to?
Have we as educators have the training and skills to tackle global issues?
How do we draw a line between what is considered as free speech and what gets ‘cancelled’? Also, who draws this line?
Do all students feel as though they have a safe place to talk about what is concerning them?
How are we safeguarding/signposting our young people who are dealing with mass information and often misinformation, on what can be truly traumatic media and social media coverage?
Are we losing learning opportunities by silencing discussions on issues our young people feel so passionate about?
Is the curriculum an authentic reflection of world histories?
At what age do we stop wanting to be truth-seekers?
Just like the BLM movement last year, the current sensitive situation around the Middle East requires such intricate training, reflection and time and space to be carefully unpacked. Many of our students feel as though it is not only their human right but also their right as a British citizen to protest and hold conversations that matter to them. Words have gravity and we wear the weight of what we see and hear. Again, I believe this could be such a watershed moment in education for us all.
Apolitical free speech: the oxymoron.
I once queried a student for wearing a wristband with the Ukrainian colours at the height of the 2014 crisis in Crimea. This intelligent young man spoke to me in-depth about what was happening in Crimea. He repeatedly told me that his stance was humanitarian but was deemed a marginal militant one. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t give young people the credit they deserve. Maybe instead of seeing them as empty shells that we must fill as educators with our subject knowledge, maybe young people are autonomously seeing the world around them and forming their own opinions. Again, any humanitarian issues are innately, and inherently political as most humanitarian crises are the result of political decisions.
As educators, we tow a fine line but do we begin shutting down conversations because they don’t neatly fit the unchallenged normative binaries that we are so accustomed to? Saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean all lives don’t matter. You would have thought by now, after much reflection, we would be at a stage where we could consider rather than dismiss the grievances of others. Let’s say, a child in our class does say, “Free Palestine”, are we right to hand out a punitive punishment and subsequently dismiss them? A school should be a place for education and direction. Of course, we must stamp out racism, yet alongside this must come a robust system to educate. We must ask: Are educators, within their respected contexts trained well enough to deal with the plethora of global issues that permeate into their classroom? Again, schools up and down the country are having this very difficult conversation. Do we police other forms of discrimination (sexism, Islamophobia, etc) with the same iron fist the way we silence conversations about Palestine? Are we alienating and invalidating the young people when they wish to hold a conversation that matters to them and their community? Again, the classroom really is the best place for these conversations.
As always, we have some solutions that are worth reflecting on. Albeit not an exhaustive list, let’s consider proactive steps forwards.
Training – seeking andreflecting
The need for high-quality anti-racism training is of paramount importance. I firmly believe all the shutting down and shouting down of conversations relating to the Middle East is because there is a lack of awareness and training. Perhaps also, most glaringly too, the unwillingness of School Leaders and those working in education to reflect and undertake this training. Our knee-jerk reaction when we hear something that doesn’t quite fit our narrative is to either go on the defensive or shut down the conversation. In doing so, do we close avenues for reflection to educate and even re-educate ourselves and our students? When a student says, “Free Palestine” are we willing to ask why they feel as though Palestine needs to be free? Do we consider the safeguarding regulations around where they have got their information from? Are we signposting them? Shying away and claiming silence does exactly what? Young people will carry on talking about what hurts them regardless of how much we police them. Again, the classroom really is the best place for these conversations. It is vital that we educate ourselves, continue the dialogue and reflect on our global issues. Our classrooms are not bubbles (no pun intended in our COVID times), as they are a miniature version of society and the best place for us to support our young people. Training and self-reflection are of paramount importance. I am certain any educator with a vested interest in providing equitable life chances for all will be happy to signpost you.
Safe spaces – making them exist
Is the classroom a safe space for all young people? We all like to think that our students can approach us with a concern and that we can signpost them. The terrifyingly graphic images of children being killed, buildings and places of worship being destroyed. This secondary trauma caused by such imagery is overwhelming. Our young people are constantly bombarded with media, so much so that it becomes impossible for them to avoid it. However, is there a safe and neutral place for them to discuss what they have seen? Is there a willingness amongst educators to hold these very difficult conversations? After hearing an audio on social media where a teacher told a student that he was categorically wrong for saying people were being killed in Palestine, shockingly this teacher began to guilt-trip the child. Did this teacher value or even consider the opinion of this child? Are schools providing a safe space for education and re-education? How can anyone think the child, and let’s make this clear, he was a child, will feel after being punished for making a comment? When did we begin to render children voiceless? When did we begin to lose our compassion? We serve the communities in which our schools are embedded in this we should be condemning and praising in equal measure.
Safe spaces; if they don’t exist, make them exist. Be that child’s safe space. Educate them in that safe space. If not your classroom, where else is truly safe for them?
Educate – liberate, don’t police and pacify
With training and safe spaces, educating our young people on the facts is imperative. We are utterly bombarded by information and misinformation, news and fake news, truth and lies. These are very uncomfortable conversations. This is unchartered terrain. At a time where various PSHE frameworks mention notions of “victim narratives”, teaching factually correct as opposed to ideologically vested versions of the truth is key. Every micro-interaction, every disruption to a lesson, every raised hand in class, all of it! All of these are incredible opportunities to learn from one another. I have had student racially abuse me but returning with an aggressive tone or seeking disproportionate sanctions leads to what, exactly? An opportunity to speak to the young person who has said something awful, trying to understand where these views come from and thus signposting them, this is how we proceed forwards. This is not easy and for example, having a child shout, “Free Palestine” can put us on the back foot. Yet, unless we address it with sensitivity, such conversations leave the vicinity of the classroom. They become detached from the safe space we have developed which perpetuates further silence. Silence is not the answer. As educators, we should be immersing ourselves in current affairs as they permeate into our classroom. We can thus have the pedagogical toolkit ready and to hand to tackle issues that affect our learners.
The rise of racism in any forms is horrific and must be challenged and questioned. We must move away from neat binaries which are both divisive and delegitimise the real grievances others are feeling. Seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Middle East requires us to be aware of the atrocities of both opposing sides. To consider humanity and loss in equal measure. Although there is no straightforward solution to this situation, we must remember that once upon a time the three religions that descend from the same Prophet (Abraham) have more in common than we are allowed to believe.
I urge educators to start another period of reflection. Punitive sanctions, shouting down conversations and invalidating behaviours is not the way forwards. Not forgetting that both silence and apathy are political stances also. We have a professional responsibility and duty to make all young people feel valued and respected. But refusing to do so, this pushes, often our most vulnerable young people into avenues and forums that are not protected by statutory safeguarding the way educational establishments are. Please think about it. The classroom really is the best place to hold these conversations.
Insha’Allah this reaches you. Please pardon my mistakes. Forever making Dua for world peace. Ameen.
Supporting Muslim staff and students during Ramadan.
Ramadan begins sometime in mid-April. Yet, as discussions continue about the exact date and which calendar we follow, little to no literature exists on how we can support Muslim teachers and students in schools. The global pandemic has seen seismic shifts in our social interactions and Ramadan this year will be like no other. During this article, the aim is to use lived experience to shed light on the festival of Ramadan. I also wish to provide some practical steps to support those who are participating in the annual fasting tradition. This is a second Ramadan in lockdown, Eid in 2020 was ripped away from us at the last minute and of course there’s suspicion over the intentions of this government. Yet, a conversation where we can bridge a disconnect, that’s what’s the Imam ordered.
What is Ramadan?
One thing that needs to be made abundantly clear; Muslims are not a homogenous group. Therefore, applying a one-size-fits-all definition to Ramadan is problematic. There are many different schools of thought in Islam. All of which deserve time, respect, and their own place to be unpacked. Sensitivity is of paramount importance and even as a Muslim myself, I must be aware of this. My sincerest apologies if I make any mistakes in this article. All faults are my own and my own only as Islam is perfect. For the purpose of this piece, and to ensure sensitivity, I will be sourcing information and citing the Islamic charity Muslim Hands.
As the very core, Muslims across the globe practice the five pillars of Islam. These five pillars include:
Shahadah – the reciting and profession of the Islamic faith.
Salah – five daily prayers and performing ritual cleansing or wudu.
Zakat – giving to charity based on one’s wealth to help those less fortunate. Donations during Ramadan often hold much greater reward for the donor.
Sawm – the process of fasting during the month of Ramadan. There are exceptions as to who can take part in fasting, but it is expected if you are of good health and sound mind.
Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca, which every able-bodied Muslim must do at least once in their lifetime.
Sawn, which is fasting during the month of Ramadan is defined as, “a month of fasting and abstaining from things considered to be impure for the mind and body. Those partaking in Ramadan abstain from food, drink and impure thoughts between the hours of sunrise (Fajr) and sunset, allowing them instead to focus on prayer and connecting with Allah (SWT).”
The act of fasting allows the individual to understand the pain and suffering of millions around the world who live their lives in poverty and famine, leaving the participant feeling more grounded and grateful for all that Allah (SWT) has given them. At the close of the month, Zakat donations during Ramadan are made and then Eid al-Fitr is celebrated with loved ones. Eid is a great time of feasting and celebration for Muslims, with gifts exchanged between loved ones.
(Muslim Hands, 2020)
When is Ramadan? At the moment, there is consensus that April 12th will mark the beginning of Ramadan. This may vary from school of thought to school of thought but the second week of April looks, well, halal!
A reflection: Personally, Ramadan is an opportunity to reflect and seek forgiveness from Allah (SWT). It is a chance to become closer to the message of Islam and develop greater self-awareness of the plight of others around the world. Whether this is in Yemen, Kashmir, Palestine, Sudan, Nigeria or wherever suppression exists, Ramadan, rather beautifully puts life into perspective. As a child and most British Pakistani Muslim people will tell you, there is no greater routine than the one we are blessed with during Ramadan. From the early starts and decisions on how to start the fast (Sehri), to seeing the incredible spread of foods for when your fast opens (Iftari), to Taraweeh prayers where you would meet and greet neighbours and members of the community who dress in the fanciest of garments, others who struggle after some over-indulgence at Iftari time! My siblings and I would joke about how Eid is the “only socially acceptable day to hug others.” The smells and aroma coming from the kitchen and euphoria and love coming from the community. Ramadan is a beautiful time of year. Words cannot do it any justice. Raising awareness is key and as a Muslims, we can open doors and be hospitable in holding these conversations.
Unconscious biases and uncomfortable truths
Although Ramadan does mean different things to different people and evokes differing feelings for different people, it is a very special month for Muslims. It is a wide consensus that every fit, able-bodied adolescent completes fasting during the month of Ramadan. It is a time of reflection and reconnection. This really is more than just avoiding food and drink. Yet, fasting is not easy. Working in a fast-paced environment, where you are in a continuous need to replenish your energy levels, it can be challenging. For our students also, many of whom have the exam season, SATs or simply a busy school day running side-by-side with Ramadan, it can be a challenge. From personal experience, I have struggled with fatigue, light-headedness and dehydration whilst teaching during Ramadan. As a student, doing cross-country in the 25 degrees Cambridgeshire sunshine, it was awful. At a time where we are beginning to hold meaningful conversations about anti-racism, inclusion, diversity, and equality, how can we support our Muslim colleagues and students during Ramadan?
Before we begin, there some common misinterpretations we do need to challenge. These are a collection of comments many Muslims teachers and students have heard and do need to be carefully and sensitively unpicked. Unconscious biases exist in almost every micro-interaction, but we challenge these, in collaboration. I would only like to focus on the two because the overtones of this piece are about proactive steps forwards.
Not even water?
I was sat in a staffroom and an overly eager member of staff offered me a coffee during Ramadan. I politely replied, “No, thank you. I am fasting.” Her reply, “Tea?” Albeit, very funny to begin with, I did explain that fasting does prohibit the consumption or food and water between sunrise and sunset. This member of staff repeatedly said, “What? Not even water?” Many Muslims will admire the curiosity, naivety and yes, they will pardon unconscious biases because that is what Islam teaches; to love all. However, we must be wary that some do find it unnerving and tiring to repeatedly correct others and almost justify their belief. Context is of great importance here. If you know that member of staff or that student well, then you can pitch questions and learn from them. We must be careful and not making our Muslim colleagues or students the epicentres of knowledge. We are all still learning, and religiosity, practice and belief can vastly vary from one person to another. Again, context is key. Getting to know your staff and students, striking rapports with them can break the ice before sensitive conversations take place.
Is it healthy?
My friend was repeatedly asked by his Head if fasting during Ramadan was healthy.This was very uncomfortable and when his Head asked him not to participate in Ramadan, he was visibly upset. Does fasting impact on your performance at work? What if he didn’t disclose that he was fasting, would that have been better or worse? Muslims have been fasting since the 7th Century and even today, health fads like intermitted fasting have their own intellectual veneer. Ramadan isn’t about food, we can cope with our brie and grape sandwiches! From a wellbeing point of view, you can where this comment is coming from but to then ask this member of staff and later tell parents that fasting could be a “distraction”, this simply seeps with insensitivity and Islamophobia. Fasting allows Muslims to reflect, cleanse their mind, body, and soul. Again, your context is key. Supporting your students and staff during Ramadan requires some soul searching. As an able-bodied adult like my friend, his personal beliefs and practices do should not be so frivolously challenged. There is still so much work to do hence when we are having this conversation.
How can we support Muslim staff and students?
These are not all-encompassing or exhaustive ways we can support Muslim students and staff. However, this begins a conversation that is necessary as we approach Ramadan.
As challenging and as uncomfortable as it may be, I believe if we want a society that is inclusive and accepting, people need to feel comfortable enough to disclose that they are participating in Ramadan. In the times we live in, even telling people that you are a Muslim can be difficult. I cannot tell you the number of times I have ignored the religion question or refused to state my religion on an application form. Sometimes we have loaded assumptions about what others think about us which can mar our interactions with them. However, as the movement towards greater appreciation and celebration of diversity slowly trickles into society, the responsibility is on us to disclose our religious practices that can potentially make some elements of our role more challenging. Once we have had this conversation, the onus then becomes on our employers to support us. Waiting around for people to notice or a token mention in a whole staff email, it doesn’t cut the jalebis! Often, acknowledgement is the precursor to understanding and acceptance.
Asking rather than assuming
When a festival like Ramadan comes along, there are common misconceptions, as well as scope for questions and curiosity. From personal experience, it can be both a blessing and a burden to be asked about your beliefs and constantly allow others to project their subjective views onto your faith. Most Muslims will be open, willing to take questions and rather you ask than make a misleading assumption. However, this needs to be done sensitively. Curiosity is admired, welcomed and vital. Yet, when Muslim staff are asked to lead an assembly on Ramadan or students are given a day off to celebrate Eid, this isn’t inclusion. Why ignore their faith until it enables you to tick a inclusivity box? Why have an assembly about Ramadan when, for example, Islamophobia remains unchallenged across your institution? Yes, inviting conversations about religious festivals and customs is important but your experts are not always your students and staff. Assuming they are spokespeople on all matters Islam, this tendency is the reason why there is so much division. We are at the mercy of a technological revolution. Information is available at an instant. There is no excuse not to be informed and the time you take out to develop an understanding of others, it will be reciprocated someday. Asking rather than assuming is a key way to support Muslim students and staff during Ramadan.
Making necessary adjustments
When you are fasting, the day naturally feels longer, and your energy levels are naturally lower. As inclusive hubs, schools must work collectively with their staff and students to create an ethos that empowers and gives a voice to everyone. During Ramadan, I have completed duties in the school canteen, been offered food and drink, asked to cover lessons in different parts of the school building and even compete in a sports day with my form class. If we are looking at teacher wellbeing and using the praxis of physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, what adjustments were made for me during Ramadan? I have a colleague who was asked to support practical Food Technology lessons during Ramadan and my nephew who is in sixth form has told me of the frustrations that his school prayer room being next to the loud Music room. Schools can make adjustments, not just during Ramadan but in how they welcome adults and young people from all walks of life. The number of schools I have visited that don’t even have adequate access for wheelchairs, it fills you with despair. We can make those adjustments, offer to do a duty for someone, avoid offering them food or drink and really change our perceptions and have meaningful interactions with others. This is a journey and one that can take together. The small, rather banal and nuanced adjustments we can make really can make a massive difference.
As a member of staff, you may begin to see Muslim teachers begin to wear headscarves or seek a place to pray. Before Ramadan, they may not have had the consciousness or courage to express an important element of their faith. This is often met with suspicion and apprehension but we got to understand the significance and weight of Ramadan. It’s an exceptionally special time to become closer to your faith. Allowing staff to pray, giving them a key to lock their door whilst they pray, acknowledging their needs. As a good friend told me “isn’t about moving mountains, it’s about raising consciousness.”
Also, we need to also accept that some students and staff may not observe fasting during Ramadan. Again, this needs to be addressed sensitively too. Some Muslim teachers may find it difficult to catch up with the latest teaching and learning fad or Tes article. This is an opportunity to become closer to our Lord. Society needs to understand this and we need to embrace this. Time and space really is everything. Schools need to reflect on inclusivity, empower their staff and make provisions available.
The holy festival of Ramadan dawns upon us again and provides us all with plenty of food for thought. If anything, I hope this article gives you an honest opportunity to reflect any for many, it will resonate very closely. Tackling and addressing unconscious biases takes learning and also unlearning, healing and also collaborating. Our Muslim colleagues and students need for us to be informed and inclusive. If you can, offer to do that duty, be curious but sensitive, seek to understand rather than pass judgement. We can all learn from one another. We all need to be part of this conversation. Everyone from our students, to TAs, to HR. Inclusive practices are not peripheral entities, they are a cultural change based upon mutual respect and understanding.
To everyone reading, Ramadan Kareem (may Ramadan be generous to you). Insha’Allah. Ameen. Again, my sincerest apologies for any mistakes I have made during the course of this writing. All mistakes are my own. I don’t know everything but I will contribute from my own experience and for some, that’s the only exposure they will have.
Thank you for reading.
And yes, not even water.
Happy Birthday, Dad. Ramadan has never felt the same since you left us. You are loved and missed. X
Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.
Racial Gaslighting, micro-aggressions, invalidating behaviours and anti-racism.
A good friend asked me to join her anti-racism session this week. After speaking to an incredibly intelligent, curious and enthusiastic group of trainee teachers, my personal reflections took a new turn. So much fantastic work is being done to improve inclusivity, diversify curriculums and hold conversations that truly matter. However, the historical biases and status quos we face remain as fragile and as resistant as ever. The work may never stop and sometimes we must accept the beneficiaries of our hard work won’t always be us and that is okay. We must take painful strides, collaboratively.
While talking about my lived experiences of racism, which do not elevate to a position of omniscience, the trauma and anxiety remain very much alive. My earliest experience of racism was at age four, where another child openly said, “I don’t like playing with P****.” As I have grown older, racism has not vanished, albeit no longer so overt. It remains a very real part of my existence, my daily experiences, my social media interactions and my sense of self. Racism does exist and has continued to evolve and manifest itself into even the most nuanced micro-interactions we have. Very often this is implicit, unconscious and we are unaware of the significance of our words and even our silence has on those who have faced generations of historical oppression. The purpose of this article is to educate through my own lived experiences of racial gaslighting. In any conversation about social change, we need concrete steps to help us move forwards.
What is racialgaslighting?
People across the world are coming together to condemn racism. National and global events often trigger conversations about the experiences of BAME people. Yet, on the rare occasion where someone who has experienced a micro-aggression or a racist comment to speaks up, it isn’t uncommon for their version of events to be cast into doubt and their experiences to be invalidated. Very real grievances are thrown out and delegitimised through what we would consider as rather banal everyday comments, many of which we will consider later. But what is racial gaslighting?
According to Professor Angelique M. Davis and Dr Rose Ernst, in their award-winning article, Racial Gaslighting (2016), define the phenomena as: “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist. By design, the survival, existence, resilience, and/or success of People of Color is an act of resistence on both macro and micro levels that results in racial gaslighting.”
Racial gaslighting is about casting doubt on the racist experiences faced by others. It is about denying a version of reality belonging to the victim and pursuing the narrative that best ‘fits’ an agenda where no action is pursued against the perpetrator. So, those who must take responsibility don’t have to shift their world views. Ultimately, implicitly or not, racial gaslighting helps maintain a very fragile monopoly of power. This version of gaslighting is rarely individualised, although it can be, but it tends to be systemic and institutional. By dismissing and thus diminishing the experiences of others, this gaslighting largely prevents very legitimate grievances being challenged and addressed. We will be looking at several examples of this.
Although this is not an exhaustive list, these are five comments I have heard countless times. These comments have been accompanied by a lack of action and thus accountability for the perpetrator. I believe many BAME people will be reading this blog and nod along in agreement. The hope is we can change the way our experiences will be dealt with in the future.
“You’re being too sensitive.”
This comment has followed almost like a shadow my entire life. Questioning and scrutinising someone’s emotional intelligence is gaslighting. The fact that I have been racially abused and can’t be feel hurt by it? Racism is incredibly traumatic and there is one experience I will never forget. As a Teacher, a rather innocuous trip to Alton Towers lead to me being racially profiled by the theme park staff. I was racially abused, accused of being “shifty” and told I don’t “look like a teacher.” This happened in front of my students and I was absolutely in tears and horrified. Immediately I was pulled over by the organiser of this trip and told, “you’re being too sensitive” and that may be I misheard what was said to me. This comment of being “too sensitive” is like saying to someone that their battle isn’t worthy. It is still very upsetting and the fact I was questioned to the point of questioning my version of reality, it meant I was “wrong” for being hurt by racism. How does this work? The psychology of it is frightening. How does one go from being a victim for the perpetrator to have excuses being made for them by us? The experience of racism is very unpleasant and evokes such anger and pain. Why am I being accused of being “too sensitive” when clearly someone has upset me on a very personal level? Why would anyone feel the need to cast into doubt the emotional compass of others when they have just gone through a very traumatic ordeal?
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
In terms of questioning one’s reality, this comment is incredibly dangerous and very insensitive. On countless occasions this what I have witnessed and experienced has been scrutinised to the point where I begin to question the reality of it. A few years back I was a TA in a very challenging school. My fellow Muslim colleagues continued to cite racism and even violence from students towards them. The situation was at almost breaking point where several of us refused to work in classes where the levels of hostility were so frightening. No one should feel unsafe or at risk at work. After witnessing a fellow TA being physically pushed to the floor and then being racially abused, I was asked to complete a statement. Within minutes of penning my final lines and handing it back, I was hauled into a meeting where several of us sat there having completed almost identical statements. The very first words were heard were “are you sure that’s what happened?” Beyond this came several really loaded and insidious questions, detailing the time, the colour of chairs and even if we had a personal relationship with the TA who was assaulted and racially abused. Leaving that meeting, I knew immediately nothing would come of it and days later, a similar incident happened again. We need to accept that racism does exist and that the victim gains nothing from falsifying claims of its existence. We are sure that’s what happened, now stop questioning us and help us find a way forwards.
“It’s not a big deal.”
The desensitisation and emotional distancing with this comment is like no other. To someone who has never experienced racism, it might not be a “big deal.” However, for those who face the realities of racism, systemic, institutional or anything in between, it is a big deal. Racism is at the heart of structural inequalities and generation of social exclusion and disadvantage. It is outrageous that someone who has never experienced racism to tell those who have, “it is not a big deal.” This alienates the victim of abuse, telling them that how they feel is invalid and further exacerbates this us vs them feeling. One incident that still leaves me so perplexed is being asked to lead a staff training event on cultural sensitivity, to the next hearing a colleague tell a BAME child “it’s not a big deal” after she was racially abused. The ability to dictate, heat and freeze what matters is a pillar of privilege and supremacy within itself. Racism is a big deal. Belittling others and their pain does not elevate your own message or status. If anything, it is more divisive. Giving others the autonomy and time and space to unpack how they feel should take precedence over forcefully dictating what should and should not be a “big deal.”
“I’m not being funny, but (insert racist comment of choice)”
Gaslighting blurs the boundaries between triviality and reality. So often, racist comments are pre-empted with “I’m not being funny but…” But, what? Why is there a need to even make this comment? It isn’t friendly banter, nor should it be camouflaged as such. This comment is used so commonly before people seek to say something they perceive as “edgy.” From my own experience, I once heard a Senior Leader in a school say, “I’m not being funny, but the Muslims are out of control.” He made no reservations and in fact, looked in my direction as he made this comment. It wasn’t at all funny and rather unapologetically, I left the room. Simply because you did not mean to cause offence doesn’t mean you haven’t. This trivial comment made by someone in a position of authority was normalised because it was not challenged. We must challenge these invalidating behaviours. I’m not being funny but gaslighting is out of control.
“They didn’t mean it that way.”
If we are talking about excusing racism or any form of discrimination, this is the go-to comment. How can you not mean it that way? Racism is racism. On the occasions this phrase has been used as “justification” for racism, the victim is left voiceless. The clearest and obvious example of this was when a friend reported their colleague for making racist remarks towards BAME students on sports day. The member of staff who was allegedly racist was never questioned and several colleagues backed him up by saying, “that how he is” and “they didn’t mean it like that.” When this happens, you begin to allow validation for racism to exist. Instead of challenging the individual, even the accuser begins to begins to cast doubt on events. They may begin to wonder if the perpetrator has had the appropriate training or perhaps there is a generational or regional gap hence their use of certain words. This is wrong. If it is indeed, “that how they are” then we must be challenging the structures that have allowed this to persist. Instead of saying “they didn’t mean it that way”, a conversation should be geared towards, “what was wrong about what they said and how can we change it?” The notion of “they didn’t mean it that way” is not an excuse for any form of discrimination. Creating justification when there isn’t any place for justification, even guilt-tripping them into acceptance of what is wrong, this is gaslighting.
I can imagine many of us are clenched up right now, possibly even at the thought we may have used the rhetoric of racial gaslighting, albeit unintentionally. You see, what we don’t see, we don’t police. But we are all on a journey to improve our understanding of one another and inevitably, we will leave behind those who are not committed to diversity and inclusion. Yet, what can we do to challenge unconscious biases, as clearly we have an issue but without the tools to proactively tackle the problem, the pain is prolonged. There is no magic wand approach, no real reading list as such. This will take reflection and time. And although we might not be the beneficiaries of the painful strides that have been made, our work will still speak for us.
Acceptance is key
When a racist incident happens, solid foundations and expectations are melted into thin air. It creates a real unease and stir. To tackle the issue, we cannot dismiss what has happened. We need to avoid value-laden assumptions and aim to re-educate perpetrators and support victims. Accepting that racism exists and that it is not okay, this is the foundation of trying to support our BAME colleagues, students and members of the community. Acceptance comes through personal reflection and also listening to the experiences of others. Lived experience is so impactful and gaining an insight into the lives of others will only enrich us in our future interactions. I am a big advocate of non-tokenistic collaboration where, for example, BAME educators are given time and space to talk about matters that impact on them. Where they control the narrative and self-regulate conversations as well as share their expertise. Everyone has a story and wants to be heard. Providing others with authentic opportunities to express their experiences, this is how we bridge the disconnect between making assumptions and developing greater awareness.
Stop allowing broken systems to persist.
Broken systems where discrimination is “justified” and excused, they cannot be allowed to persist. Silence and denial are incredible enablers. They must be challenged. Particularly in educational settings. If we relate this to safeguarding or wellbeing, no child or member of staff should be uncomfortable in sharing their experiences or even reporting incidents. We must continue challenging, reflecting and working towards providing everyone with a safe place to express their very real grievances. Systems and people who are broken, unwilling to be part of conversations about diversity and inclusion, we have to leave them and focus on those who are willing to engage with us and our truth.
Our analysis of this notion of racial gaslighting has taken many turns. At the very core, if we are in a position where people want to listen, we must continue holding conversations that matter. Racism still exists in society and whether this is overt or not, challenging the foundations that enable it to prosper begins with us, our micro-interaction and challenging unconscious biases. Ultimately, we need to give people time and space to unpack their experiences and ultimately, this will enrich us all. We should not question the emotional competence or sanity of our BAME colleagues, students or neighbours. As clearly they feel as injustice. Challenge the injustice. We need to continue challenging these broken systems.
Finally, I have also recently heard about the tragic case of Mohamud Hassan who was suffered fatal injuries at the hands of police officers in Cardiff. His family deserve answers and justice. Please see the link at the end of this blog – read, donate and share widely. This reiterates the fact that Black Lives Matter.
Thank you for reading,
Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish) On Race, Identity and Belonging
Angelique Davis & Ernt Rose ‘Racial Gatekeeping’, Politics, Groups, and Identities, 7:4, 761-774
This past Monday started like no other. I was sat at my PC, ready to plan for lessons and get ready for another week of remote teaching. Within minutes of Tweeting about Piers Morgan jumping ship during the pandemic and adding to the already extraordinary list of high profile teacher bashers, I found myself in the eye of a storm. Mr Morgan had quote Tweeted me, seemingly under the veneer of social justice leading to a public pile-on. The racism, Islamophobia and sheer abusive dismissiveness of the profession I love made me realise how deep the disconnect is between this country and its educators. This needs to be addressed, misconceptions need challenging and a consensus needs to be reached about the reality and the rhetoric of life at the chalkface. This is my open letter to the public.
At 8pm on January 4th, the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown. As we had spent the day preparing for student returns and their Christmas break living in uncertainty like the rest of us, schools are closed. Well, kind of closed because closed has the connotations that all that is teaching and all that is learning ceases to exist as school gates are firmly padlocked and ginormous academies replicate apocalyptic film set. Teaching and learning moved online, new pedagogies had to be developed and again, with no consultation or real warning, School Leaders were left feeling like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. The public backlash is not against the government who are responsible for Britain having the highest death toll in Europe or even the private backers of the “world-beating” track and trace system. Our nation’s educators have been the enemy of the public for some time now, with mass misconceptions, appalling commentary, nebulous and vicious rumours, all cemented under the guise of “how hard can it be?” or “lazy teachers love a good moan” and “everyone else is getting on with it, why can’t you?” This needs challenging, addressing and again, a sense of unity is required.
My personal position of platform is something I am learning about every day. Many people feel like it is not their place to speak about real life issues. However, how can I turn my back on a profession that has gave me so much as a child and has empowered me so much as an adult? I am not a spokesperson for all educators but with platform comes privilege. It’s time to hold a conversation that matters. This bombastic orgy of teacher bashing needs to be dissected and whilst this blog is not an all-exhaustive piece, I hope it does justice for the incredible educators out there who are also demoralised, hurt, struggling but still trying their best during these truly awful times.
Teaching is like any other job.
It really isn’t. To become a teacher it takes tremendous sacrifice, hard work and dedication. We spend years in academia, completing exams, going through the natural trajectory of schooling and higher and further education. If teaching was easy then I would challenge anyone to get an undergraduate degree, complete a post-graduate qualification as they rush through two contrasting placements, and then actually do the job. If it was “easy” why do we have a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. The complexity of a classroom, the thousands of micro-decisions we have to make every day, the skill, social and emotional competence, resilience, commitment and I could go on and on. A teacher is a special person and our role is never simply like a 9-5. It is all-encompassing and challenging career choice we make. It is also the greatest privilege in the world – to be educating the next generation and providing them with the knowledge and skills to be part of our society. The fact that we have switched learning online, it has thrown a major curveball at us as educators but we are adapting, it will take time but we are experts at responding to last minute changes. As remote learning takes centre stage, I challenge any member of the public to simultaneously take a register, share a split-screen, read out instructions, shift between multiple tabs, whilst trying your best to remain calm when you have 30 doe-eyed cherubs waiting to be taught! We have the threat of Ofsted inspections and an Education Secretary who continues to stoop to new levels of incompetence at the helm too. Even schools are not promoting “Remote Learning Leads.” Nothing compares to the pressure we face. No teacher training course or provider could train us for a pandemic! Again, if it was easy, why don’t you sign up or volunteer for the day?
You had 10 months to prepare for this.
This was a comment I read several times on Monday. Did we have 10 months? Moving teaching online changes how we operate, it alters our routines and it does have a massive impact on our planning, workload and our personal lives? Most people in education has little to no time to prepare for this national lockdown. The logistics of moving learning online is not simply something we can pluck out of thin air like a “world-beating” catchphrase. We had the best part of morning and our disrupted Christmas holidays to get our heads around the changes that were going to be put in place. One minute Chris Whitty is telling us schools are safe, the next Priti Patel informs us education staff are at a greater risk. In December, teachers’ were supposedly being asked to partake in mass testing in schools and by January 5th, schools has closed in their full capacity. The government had ten months to find a solution to this pandemic but where is the public outcry? Yet, the press and public are keen to attack Mrs Jones in the Maths Department at any given opportunity. Truth is, with all the U-turns and constant stop-start nature of schools because of awful policy making, we had 10 months to switch to blended learning, face masks in class rooms, year group rotas and an equitable alternative to exams. 10 months have come and gone but the complex nature of our roles means teaching needs to be adapted, refined and even how we assess engagement and progress has been thrown into uncertainty with remote learning. No one can prepare you for sitting at a computer all day. With all due respect to office jobs, remote teaching throws up a new challenge everyday. Whether this is with technology, a student absence or anything else. Yes, we’ve had 10 months but teaching never stands still and we continue to adapt and seek best practice as the excellent reflective practitioners we are. This isn’t easy. It really is surreal. How much our students feel? We have had 10 months of hell, U-turns, increasing workload and since September, we have lived with the constant fear of contracting COVID and putting our own loved ones at risk.
Kids are missing out on an education
This is pretty much Mr Morgan had to say to me. It is bizarre how those who berate “lazy” teachers are now social justice warriors. Where was your outrage when 322 MPs voted against feeding the most disadvantaged children over half-terms? One of the only bastions of legitimate social mobility is education and the prized asset in education is its teachers’. We are contributing to the lives of these children, are you? As you seem to know the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child off by heart, where is this anger with the Education Secretary who still hasn’t delivered his promise of laptop provision for our most disadvantaged learners? There should be no selective amnesia when it comes to social justice. Schools have insurmountable pressures on them to be centres of education, care, support and very often a child’s second home. To berate those who are trying their best to provide children with the best opportunities to get on in life is deeply damaging, especially at a time where teacher morale is virtually rock bottom. These children do not need a celebrity to be their mouthpiece. They need an education system that provided them equality of opportunity, schools that are adequately resourced, staffed and funded and a democratic system that represents their concerns. Children have, of course, missed out on an education but the pandemic is simply exposing the deeper wounds of structural inequalities that have existed for generations. Yet whilst the poorest suffer, the more privileged are thriving and in some cases getting much richer. The current school meals scam demonstrates perfectly how the establishment view the public especially those in receipt of additional support. We need to challenge these inequalities to help fill these gaps rather than resort to racism and teacher bashing which no one benefits from, especially not our young people.
This global pandemic has been awfully managed by our government and one of the pillars of society the government has a vested interest in; education has suffered greatly. How do we support our lost disadvantaged learners? How do we ensure the quality of remote teaching matches that of the excellence in the classroom? This starts with providing every child with equal access and every school with adequate funding and resources to educate and liberate the young people in their care. Public pile-ons, teacher bashing, divisive rhetoric and judging from a position of comfort and detachment is hindering the work teachers’ are doing during these tough times. I challenge us to either meet somewhere in unity or for you to show us how it’s done. Ultimately, we all want the best for our young people, right? Teaching is like no other job. The social nature of our roles means we are also missing out of seeing our students engaged or the raw energy and inspiration the classroom provides us. As much as we miss our students and colleagues, the safety of our communities takes precedence.
If you are teaching bashing or upset with your schools or child’s school, please use the appropriate channels to relay your concerns. If you are really infuriated, why not train to be a teacher? I’m being serious, why not? I’ll even signpost you as we do have a retention and recruitment crisis. Either that or support us as the divisiveness helps no one. May be your anger should be at the missing track and trace system that cost the taxpayer billions and not your local school.
To all my teaching colleagues, you are doing incredibly well. As my late Grandfather used to say, “if you can’t see the goodness, be the goodness.” Thank you for all you have given me and all that you give to our great profession.
Finally, I would just like to commemorate those who have sadly lost their lives during this pandemic. Life is fragile and criminally short. Over 100,000 deaths with more than 1,500 announced today. It’s heartbreaking. Although our often grief-illiterate culture means we have the “keep calm and carry on” ethos, you will be remembered. Ameen. God bless Marcus Rashford too. X
Write hard and clear about what hurts – Ernest Hemingway
Mass testing, mass restrictions or mass contradictions – Who do we follow?
Just like so many people, my Christmas plans were ruined with the new Tier system. But perspective is everything and yesterday another 744 deaths were announced. This is rather frighteningly with the 28-day cut off, so during the last lockdown. I found myself increasingly angrier by the day which was consolidated by yet another out-of-body experience; the Daily COVID briefing from Downing Street. Let’s make no bones about it, this country NEVER had control over the pandemic.
2020 has been the year where so many of us have made heart-breaking sacrifices and if missing Eid was not hard enough, Christmas has thrown us a new curve ball. All sentiment aside, the elephant in the room is schools. What does the government do? Education is the political arena for policy makers to project their ideological agendas and flex their zealousness. In this neo-liberal market place that is now education, the pandemic has exposed the gaps which are now enormous chasms and canyons. The pre-COVID damage cannot have a bandage placed over it as this pandemic has melted all that is certain into thin air.
Head teachers up and down the country are beyond anxious, constantly having to deal with moving goal-posts, ill-direction and last minute guidelines from the DfE. Our Education Secretary and Schools Minister assess the situation from a vantage point of comfort and detachment. Teaching unions are labelled as “militant” for seeking assurances on safety. Finally, teachers themselves are branded as “lazy” if they dare complain and “political” if they dare question education policies. This political merry-go-round exists against the backdrop of rising COVID cases, tighter restrictions, a faltering economy, UNICEF and Marcus Rashford intervening to feed our most disadvantaged children and Britain having the highest death toll in Europe. This is simply abhorrent for the 6th richest country in the world.
I am an avid viewer of the Downing Street briefings (please don’t ask why I put myself through the pain). Just like so many of us, I walk away feeling cheated, lied to and gaslighted. No matter who leads them, these briefings are filled with political rhetoric, watered down ideological language and rarely have public health at heart. I patiently wait for one of the experts (especially Jonathan Van Tam) to mention schools and then I react. The briefings alone are an experience in themselves but the mixed messages, that is what is causing mass confusion and such discontent amongst the public, especially educators. From my own analysis, I have some non-exhaustive points of discussion.
Schools – COVID Factories?
Between April and September, Gavin Williamson continued to tell us that schools are someone miraculously COVID free. On the eve of schools reopening for September, Williamson said, “I would urge you to keep in mind that all four of our country’s chief medical officers, including [chief medical officer for England] Chris Whitty, are unanimous in believing the health risk posed by Covid-19 to children is extremely low.”
At this stage, we were all “eating out with Rishi” and it appeared the number of cases and deaths had fallen significantly. The celebratory sentiment of the government could not be more evident as national lockdown restrictions had been lifted. As teaching unions continued to be caricatured as “Marxist”, they pleaded with the DfE to intervene and plan the 2020-21 academic year more carefully, schools still reopened. Williamson was so assured schools were safe that all year groups returned in September and vast social mixing was visible in schools even with social distancing measures in place. In fact, according to Worldometres, on August 31st there were 1,406 new cases and COVID-19 had claimed 41,501 lives by this stage. Some six week later when my school had broken up for October half-term, the number of cases skyrocketed to 20,890 and an additional 3,489 had been announced over this six week period. Of course, reopening schools and rising cases/deaths is an easy and somewhat nebulous correlation but it not one that we can totally rule out. The situation actually got so bad that the Independent SAGE group actually called for a circuit-breaker lockdown during October half-term which was ignored and during this term the WHO actually notified the government about a new variant of COVID. I bet they didn’t tell you that at the daily briefings did they?
One thing that remains clear is that the number of cases and deaths has increases exponentially since schools reopened in September. Whether we like it or not, the only logical way to tackle this pandemic is to reduce the numbers of people in circulation to stop the spread. This includes children who do carry and spread the virus. A viable and sustainable long-term strategy is required where the government liaise with school leaders, local authorities and vested stakeholders to intervene as clearly the current state of affairs is simply not working.
ǝɔuǝᴉɔS ǝɥʇ ʍolooℲ
One thing I love about Professor Van Tam is his subtle ability to embed integrity into his words. Back in September, JVT were openly said that infection rates are rising fastest in: confined spaces, close contact, crowded areas, extended duration of contact and volume (singing, shouting, etc). Implicitly or explicitly, Van Tam described a modern day school/classroom. This came days after Williamson giving the green flag for schools to reopen. So, which one is it gents? Are schools COVID-free zones or as the data and clearly the experts tell us, are they breading grounds for this virus? Are we actually following the science?
By November, the number of cases and deaths began to get out of hand by November when the PM called for a national lockdown which excluded education settings. Despite, at this stage, ONS data showing that COVID cases were spreading fastest in education settings, schools remained open. Data continued to show that cases were rising and daily deaths were hitting 500/600 a day. When we watched on at Italy in March and prayed nothing like this would happen in Britain, nine months on this country is world-beating, well Euro-beating in deaths. However, the political agenda to “save Christmas” began to take precedence but the setting where COVID was spreading uncontrollably remained off topic and a taboo for policy makers. But the confusion continued…
Leaks to the press meant the last week of term was, well you know, unprecedented. Apparently teachers will now be trained to administer COVID tests! Who actually knows? Yet, when guidelines are sent out the night or weekend before the term starts or ends, do you blame school leaders for feeling so frustrated? When the term had ended, Matt Hancock in an interview with Sky News openly said, “we need to do everything to stop the spread in school-age children now.” Yet, Williamson told us, “there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school.” Check your notes, Gavin. Your data comes from April to August when schools were in-part closed, thus making this inference is like sneezing into a face mask and calling it moisturiser. Hancock had contradicted Williamson, for Chris Whitty to say that COVID spreads in “biologically advantageous “ conditions which Van Tam once described as essentially being schools. Then yesterday, Jenny Hardies claimed that teachers are at no greater risk than anyone else, which is backed by Whitty’s comments that teaching is not a high-risk occupation. Most school leaders would struggle to get their head around this.
The farrago of confusion and misleading ideological wordplay from the experts and politicians provides no peace whatsoever for those teachers and support staff who have had to self-isolate and the families of those who are grieving. It is gaslighting beyond epic proportion to say that schools do not spread COVID when you have all the necessary ingredients for this virus to breed. Namely, poorly ventilated and crowded areas, close contact, and duration of time. Isn’t it time we followed the science? You know, the science that is sanitised of ideological point-scoring and “world-beating” jargon? The science that will actually save lives?
Closing schools has always been somewhat of a non-negotiable under the veneer of “disadvantaged children are falling behind.” The same disadvantaged children who have had to live under the crippling decade of austerity that has seen mainline services cut, university tuition fees tripled and schools chronically underfunded. Yes, the disadvantaged children! The same disadvantaged children our Education Secretary voted against feeding over half-term?
I am still in disgust that the sixth richest country in the world cannot provide meals let alone adequate resources for learning to moved online to protect communities from COVID-19. This is a damning indictment of the society we live in, the inequalities that have perpetuated and prospered and repeated failure of successive governments to solve child poverty. Although teachers and social commentators will be branded as “political” if they are up in arms about inequality, when did keeping others safe and providing them equality of opportunity become political? As previously stated, the unwillingness to tackle structural inequalities over the past decade and the stagnant social mobility in this country has been left ruthlessly exposed by the global pandemic. We have got to the stage where the most vulnerable children are unsafely attending school and potentially taking home a virus that could harm their loved ones. With no real alternatives being provided, leaving schools open in their full capacity is unsafe, dangerous and although there is consensus that schools are the safest place for children, are we considering the impacts staff absences, self-isolation and material deprivation on our most disadvantaged learners? We need a plan which goes beyond handing out laptops or marking pupil premium books first. The legacy of this pandemic will be how we supported our most vulnerable. As MPs continue to mention throwing a “protective ring” around the most disadvantaged, how about we throw one around schools and teachers who are a child’s best resource and safe place. If we want to “save” these children, let’s start by protecting them and their families from this potentially fatal virus.
I am always very conscious of my writing as I don’t intend to make it grim reading but there is a fine line between venting and dumping. Teachers have just spent 14 weeks in COVID-inducing conditions, many are self-isolating or in lockdown when they should be around loved ones. As schools are the arena for policy makers to reflect their ideological values, educators should never forget their purpose, their role and responsibility to provide every child with the best education in the safest environment possible. I speak to friends who are purchasing hand sanitiser for their students and even additional PPE for colleagues, it makes you wonder if the chasm between political rhetoric and our daily realities will ever be bridged.
I do want to go back to data and statistics. Between September 1st and December 23rd, the number of COVID deaths has risen by 27,550 (from 41,501 to 69,051). We all know the elephant in the room isn’t “it’s true season” or “there’s more testing.” Schools are driving COVID. We may have had bubbles burst, year groups sent home or perhaps we know of colleagues who have tragically passed away from this virus. What is being done to prevent more deaths? On-site testing isn’t the eureka moment, schools and their leaders need more, much more. It is time to safeguard the public and introduce,
-Blended learning -Face masks -PPE for schools -Year group rotas -Equitable alternatives to exams Cutting off the conditions in which COVID prospers should be our priority. Simply placing a bandage over the wound does not deal with the infection itself, both literally and metaphorically. Ironically, teaching unions actually called for these interventions and I’m still unsure how they pay homage to Karl Marx, do you?
Who do we follow? Who will stand up and lead us through these challenging times? The answer is – YOU. You have been in those classrooms. You have made the ultimate sacrifice this year under unbelievable pressures from MPs and the press. To every teacher out there, it is time to switch off and whatever obstacles come in front of us in January, we will be there and we will honour both our students and those who have suffered losses during this pandemic. We follow the example set by Marcus Rashford. We find our own leaders or we become them. Here’s to the vaccine too. May 2021 bring us all some much needed joy. Ameen.
Finally, to those who are reading this and struggling over this Christmas period, there is support out there.
Samaritans – 116 123
Mind Charity – 03001233393
Young Minds – textline 85258
Education Support – 08000 562 561
The Calm Zone – 0800 585858
Women’s Aid – 0808 2000247
Finally, sending a extra Merry Christmas and Christmas Mubark to all those:
Christmas, unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion.
Practical ways we can make Christmas inclusive for Muslim teachers.
I love Christmas time. Even as a Muslim, I am always in awe of the sense of community, the festivities and the togetherness. However, before anyone hands me a glass of mulled wine, which I have Googled countless times to ensure is halal for me to drink, I have some questions. In the Islamic faith we commemorate all the Prophets and their contributions. I hate to break it to those on the right but in my life I am yet to meet a Muslim who is offended by eggnog or Santa. I have yet to meet a Ebenezer Scrooge praying in Arabic or tearing down a Christmas tree as he chases down carol singers and condemns the Queen’s speech. Sorry, Laurence Fox. However, I do believe there are many tacit loaded assumptions or what are commonly known as “unconscious bias” about those who do not celebrate Christmas. This is certainly the case for Muslims too. We can sensitively and respectfully challenge these biases to enable us all to have a Merry Christmas however we may wish to celebrate it.
I have read a handful articles about celebrating Christmas, Xmas jumper days and much more but what about those who do not celebrate it? How about those who don’t attach the same level of importance or tradition to it as the host population? Surely they deserve recognition? In the era of inclusion, why are we excluding? Isn’t their battle worthy? Shouldn’t schools be promoting cultural and religious sensitivity? There appears to be a gap and as some voices remain rendered invisible, it was time to write about the British Muslim perspective on Christmas. What does Christmas look like through the lens of a British Muslim? May be it something you have never considered but together, let’s consider it. ‘Tis the season to hold difficult conversations.
This has been a year of self-pride and self-discovery. In September, I wrote about the underachievement of Pakistani-British Muslims and ways we can address this as educators. As we are holding conversations about inclusion, equality and diversity, what about Muslim staff during the Christmas break? Due to the global pandemic, our equivalent to Christmas – Eid, it was cancelled. Many Muslim families celebrated Eid alone for the very first time. Personally, I was unable to complete Eid prayer at my local mosque because of lockdown. Close relatives and neighbours chose not to gather and the traditional Eid brunch, well you could hear the echo in the rooms as the spoon kissed the rasmalai bowl. COVID-19 really did hit the community hard but as the Christmas holidays fall in line with national holidays, Muslims up and down the country will also be having a much deserved break. We must seek to confront unconscious biases, othering and micro-aggressions through our interactions with others. Let’s rest over Christmas but not rest on our laurels when it comes to inclusion and diversity.
How can we support Muslims teachers during the festive period?
I believe there are many ways we can support our Muslim teachers and also just those who do not celebrate Christmas out of choice. Before we begin a rapturous chorus of the 12 Days of Christmas or deck the halls with boughs of holly, we must approach this dialogue with sensitivity. I have four non-exhaustive ideas that aim to provide opportunity for dialogue and bridge greater understanding. Also to challenge unconscious bias in a more holistic way.
For me, sensitivity is key. Not everyone celebrates Christmas but that does not mean they do not understand the meaning of the celebration, the significance and tradition of the day and national importance placed behind it. Sometimes we make loaded assumptions without realising and we are not corrected because those we have spoken about do not feel comfortable in doing so. Let’s take a snippet of a conversation I had at work last year.
N: “Shuaib, what do you do over Christmas? It is a void day, right?
Me: “I have family and friends who do celebrate it.”
N: “So, would you like a Christmas card?”
N is a lovely chap and don’t get me wrong, his intentions were never to upset me but this lack of sensitivity came from a lack of understanding. Being sensitive towards those who do not celebrate Christmas is about not assuming their position, stance or viewpoint. If anything, this sensitivity can be created by simply getting to know your colleagues and your students, and bridging the cultural or religious gap, all of which will help promote future dialogue in more sensitive way. You can ask questions, it really is ok.
If you are unsure…
Ask and ask respectfully. Please don’t assume. In one school I was excluded from Secret Santa and the end of year Christmas meal because in their word own words, “we were unsure if you would want to get involved because you are a Muslim.” Yes, my faith is Islam but does it prohibit me from attending staff gatherings or sharing gifts? Absolutely not. It can be so innocuous at times like offering someone a mince pie or inviting them to the staff Christmas party or simply wishing them a Merry Christmas. How will you know what is appropriate if you do not ask? I was once handed a bottle of Chardonnay as a secret Santa present. I am a Muslim, I don’t drink but was I offended? No. However, if this colleague was to have struck up the conversation with me, I would have signposted them. Most Muslims are kind and friendly people who will answer questions and want you to understand their faith. With Christmas too, if you are unsure, please just ask. It is either asking or handing me a bottle of Jack Daniels which I cannot consume anyway! If you are unsure about a present, or what is in festive food, please ask. The number of times I’ve had to ask colleagues, “Is this halal?” as I’m offered a mince pie, it will leave you astounded. Simply asking a Muslim member of staff what they are comfortable with and how you can approach the topic of Christmas sensitively would be so beneficial for all parties involved. Next time you ask a Muslim colleague about their decision not to participate in Christmas jumper day, just be considerate. Christmas can be an excellent opportunity for inter-faith dialogue which can only be done if we are prepared to be brave enough to ask. Ask; but respectfully.
This has become the buzzword for 2020. From personal experience, many Muslim teachers do want to feel included in every aspect of their working environment. Whether this is in the office or in the classroom. Inclusion in a non-tokenistic manner is something every institution should be striving for to form a diversity of viewpoints that everyone will be beneficiaries of. At the very core, although most Muslims do not celebrate Christmas, they still want to be included in the festivities. In my previous article about underachieving Pakistani-British Muslims, I referred to the notion of “over-assimilation.” There is a case for this here also. To the Muslim teachers who were born and raised in Britain, Christmas is engrained in their psyche. It is a banal and ordinary part of their life and calendar year. This means, although many of us don’t have Fairytale of New York or Last Christmas on our Spotify playlists (I do), Christmas is still a significant event for us. At one particular school, some Muslim staff asked not to attend the school Christmas nativity. The school assumed this was on religious grounds but when I caught up with two TAs, they openly told me they felt excluded from the production process. It was assumed they didn’t know enough about the Nativity story despite having performed in it themselves when they were at school. These two ladies grew up on the staple of watching Home Alone on repeat! If we etch out the blaring differences we uncover stark similarities with one another. Again, if you are unsure, ask. With Christmas, there come loaded tacit assumptions but including all staff could go a long way in creating more understanding about one another.
Your break is our break too
Christmas may be a non-Islamic festival but it is also a break for everyone. After seven long gruelling weeks, the assumption that Christmas does not mean anything to those who celebrate it does implicitly trivialise the hard work they have put in during the term. When I have been asked, “So, what do you do over Christmas?” Really, my Christmas is not too different from yours. Of course, I don’t have a tree or Christmas lunch with extra brussel sprouts, but I rest, relax and recover. The assumption that my break is somewhat radically different from your is so misleading. Just like you, I am tired and ready to switch off from work. Like you, I may binge watch an entire Netflix series, eat my body weight in chocolate (not me, as I hate chocolate – sorry), catch up on podcasts, enjoy my lie ins and really, just enjoy not being at work. It has been an unprecedented year and all of us just been to pause, reflect and have a break. For everyone not celebrating Christmas, they deserve this time too. Your break is our break too.
I wish everyone reading this piece a very Happy Christmas. So many of us are often left clenched up and anxious at the thought of approaching others about holidays because we are unsure of how they may react. Christmas is a special time of year and most Muslim staff and those who do not celebrate Christmas are looking forwards to the break. But please be sensitive, do not make assumptions, be inclusive and remember, your Christmas break is also a chance for others to take a breather after a truly exhausting term. The tacit and often value-laden assumptions can be dismantled through dialogue and learning more about one another. We must all keep working to challenged and unravel unconscious bias and although Christmas provide us with a much needed break, we cannot allow the festive period to stop us fighting the good fight.
Ultimately, as reflective practitioners, we should all be looking to ensure greater sensitivity and inclusion through our every interaction. Christmas is a unique opportunity to bridge misconceptions and gain more light about each other.
If you have not began work on making yourself more inclusive with your words and actions, I pray Christmas provides you with the time to reflect and reconsider. Here’s to 2021. A year of prosperity, inclusion and for us all to have conversations that matter.
Why have we stopped talking about people dying of Covid?
It has been a truly unprecedented year. No one could have expected a global pandemic to bring society to its knees and alter almost ever interaction we have had in 2020. COVID-19 has halted the economy, cost millions their jobs but let’s not forget the lives that have been lost too.
Losing someone you love causes such unimaginable pain. With this pandemic, the grief is coupled with anger. Families who have lost loved ones are grieving their loss but also dealt with the body blow of gross negligence from their government. A government who have continued to adhere to the, “keep calm and carry on” herd immunity public message. Although I am not a political commentator as such, I still believe we need to be honouring those who have lost their lives to COVID. We also need some sort of analysis for the question, why have we stopped talking about people dying of Covid?
Before we begin, on Thursday I was leaving my house ready to teach. As I placed my bags in my car, my neighbour, who has been shielding since March walked passed and said, “Hello, you alright?” Inevitable, we exchanged greetings and he went on to say, “your Grandad, I can’t believe it’s been five years since he passed away. I remember seeing him walk up and down the street all the time. He is missed.” November 15th marked five years since we lost Grandad and I still feel the weight of loss, everyday. My neighbour went on to say, “It’s been a tough year hasn’t it” The drive work was longer than usual. My neighbour remembered my Grandad and I just felt like this was a sign to write something, in a year where so many of us are finding the courage to write hard and passionately about things that hurt.
“It’s only a cold.”
“More people die from the flu.”
“I don’t know anyone who has had COVID.”
“It’s ok, there’s a vaccine coming.”
“I’ve stopped watching the news.”
These are all comments I have heard over few months. I won’t spend time debunking them as they all have a profound lack of sense, empathy and rationality to them. They are all also very dangerous comments. I find myself, almost every evening, waiting for Tweets from @UKCovid19Stats and @LawrenceGilder relating to the number of COVID-19 deaths. I’m still angry about how this pandemic has been handled, frustrated with the lack of support for my fellow teachers and beyond disillusioned by policy makers who hold the interests of their corporate donors at heart. Public health, the wellbeing of the nation, even feeding the most disadvantaged children over half term, all seem to take a backseat as ideological zealousness proceeds. It is capitalism on steroids where the global financial market seems to have stranglehold over us all. In and amidst this, one of the cruelest realities of this pandemic has been the unwillingness to converse in dialogue about those who have tragically lost their lives to this awful virus. As the media and politicians trivialise the matter, frequently with 30 second segments during prime time news, our grief-illiterate culture comes to the surface, thus creating such callous emotional distancing from the true victims of this pandemic. Namely, those who have sadly lost their lives, the grieving families and the BAME community who are disproportionately more likely to contract COVID.
Why have we stopped talking about people dying of Covid?
So, why have we stopped talking about people dying of Covid? From my own analysis, I have three answers to this question. Albeit non-exhaustive, I just hope they provide us with an opportunity to reflect.
Depoliticisation of COVID-19 deaths
The depoliticising of COVID deaths as they are seen as inevitable. What is inevitable about 58,000+ dying, zero willingness to follow the science, schools remaining unsafely open, billions handed out to corporate lobbyists and cronies, an ineffective “world-beating” track and trace and a PM that makes as much sense as jam sandwich on a gourmet menu? Whenever we see #COVIDIOTS trending or leading behaviour scientists on TV telling us that lockdowns are ineffective because of the selfish use of individual free will, this implicitly allows the government to avoid all accountability. The pandemic has been repeatedly depoliticised through misleading guidelines, a lack of clarity and gaslighting. We have stopped talking about COVID deaths because we feel as though there is no one left to blame. We are tired, desperately seeking some form of normality but within this, thousands are still dying. The wall of silence and lack of empathy is a damning indictment of the very culture of our country.
Christmas is coming
It’s clear, when the PM announced that restrictions would be eased between December 23rd to 27th, Boris wanted to be the man who “saves Christmas.” The press had their field day, lapping up commentary on seeing loved ones and forming “Xmas bubbles.” Christmas is a beautiful occasion but this year is like no other in our lifetime. No one would want to cause a loved on harm, especially without knowing. COVID-19 does not discriminate. It can be contracted by anyone at any given time. Although Christmas and all it’s festivities get us excited, this virus does not disappear at the sight of eggnog, the sound of Rudolph landing on our roof or underneath mistletoe. One thing I have learnt from my own personal journey of grief is perspective. This “lost Christmas” narrative is painfully short-sighted. If we consider those who have already lost so much this year, even those who have lost their lives to this pandemic, we would realise that life is fragile but also so sacred.
The vaccine dawns upon us
News of a vaccine was music to my ears. In a year where we have all learnt to be sceptical, critical and more self-aware, knowing there is a vaccine should be applauded. Let’s get this clear, it’s a vaccine and not a cure. I think the most dangerous press leak was to give the public a sniff of a vaccine. Of course, celebrating a scientific breakthrough would improve the morale of the nation but is it dangerous to announce something before rigorous scientific evidence is presented? Does providing the public a false sense of hope empower us to relax, take, as the PM himself said, “our foot off the throat of the beast”? One of the major issues surrounding lockdowns and tiers is that people don’t know whether to stick or to twist. There remains an uneasy precedence and a vaccine remains hearsay until it becomes available to the already very disillusioned and exhausted general public. The proverbial and inevitable shit storm that will follow the vaccine needs to be relegated for now. As hundreds still die everyday, we seem to be thinking that a vaccine will compensate for Britain having the highest death toll in Europe.
We live in a grief-illiterate culture
We most certainly do. Growing up in this country, before Dad died, I was arrogant and oblivious to loss. It never registered with me and if I wasn’t sharing a clichéd quote or rather cold words of “wisdom”, I would avoid the topic. An inevitable part of life is loss. Those who love, and I mean love with our hearts and more than ourselves, losing them creates such unimaginable pain. Yet, as a society we remain detached from loss. It is the elephant in the room but one we don’t wish to awake. Our grief-illiteracy can be some will illustrated when, say, Dominic Cummings or Rishi Sunak get a full 20 minute segment in the news but the number of COVID deaths are covered in mere seconds. Imagine being a loved one of someone who has died from COVID. The disrespect is astounding. These are people, they aren’t numbers or statistics. Not everyone has the competence to understand loss and it’s beyond saddening at time where we continue to brush death under the carpet. Just the thought of fiddling with data and continuing to leave schools unsafely open, it demonstrates the lack of regard society places on human life. We have stopped talking about COVID deaths because it doesn’t fit our narrative, it isn’t something we have the competence or emotional intelligence to discuss. We have stopped talking about COVID deaths because we see them as “inevitable” and our grief-illiterate culture has desensitised us from the pain and hurt of the of others. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve stopped watching the news.” Being informed and aware of the pain and loss of others only brings us all closer.
This has been the most unprecedented year but we have hit a real wall of silence when it comes to those who have tragically lost their lives to COVID. No matter the pain, strain, societal taboo or lack of personal lived experience, these are 58,245 people, including the 215 announced today. 58,245 families will never be the same again. We must honour them and their loved ones, as well as take the precautions to safeguard and protect ourselves and those dear to us too. Many of us will be ending this year without the company of those we love. Here without them, we can still remember the warmth and love they brought to this world.
When we stop talking about COVID, we distance ourselves from the plight of our front line services that have kept this country afloat. We fail to understand the challenges our Doctors, Nurses and Teachers face on a daily basis. We also trivialise their sacrifices to protect, help, educate and safeguard society. Let’s have a silent round of applause for these incredible people. Acknowledging their sacrifice doesn’t have to be broadcasted, just wear a face mask and socially distance. That will make our lives so much easier, oh and yours too.
We must remember those who have left us as the proverb goes, “If you don’t remember somebody out loud, they die twice”. Ameen
“You will never bask in the light of your own glory if you continue to throw shade at others”
The Priti Patel bullying affair and Anti-Bullying Week
Last week was Anti-Bullying Week and despite having the urge to write, I refrained from the topic. A mixture of personal anxiety and fear really escalated when it was announced that the Prime Minister had decided to take no action against Secretary of State, Priti Patel. Upon hearing this, I was midway through planning Anti-Bullying Week PowerPoint and couldn’t believe what I had heard.
Having never met Patel or ever intended to cross paths with her, the right-wing commenators like Allison Pearson came to her rescue. Many Tory MPs tweeted in solidarity and the golden BAME MP, who many still believe represents all BAME people. I am not a political writer but any position of platform calls for us to call out injustice as we see it, right? In a very unprecedented year where many of us have learnt how to write hard and speak up about what hurts, the bruises of bullying don’t disappear when we change the channel or skip through stories on our newsfeed. There are real victims out there who have lost their jobs, careers they loved, friends and even their lives. We must honour and respect these people and their stories. Anti-Bullying Week cannot be paid lip service to, it must be a sustained cultural change to treat others in a kinder, more compassionate and understanding way.
So, Priti Patel broke the Ministerial Code by swearing and shouting at her staff. A report which sat on Boris Johnson’s desk for months and had gathered dust before the PM decided to throw out any wrongdoing. Claims of Patel’s behaviour as being “unintentional” became the media soundbite. Imagine “unintentionally” bullying someone. In an era many have aptly labelled as the “year of anti-expert”, where Doctors are being told to mind their tone, Scientists are silenced and government advisors are allowed to make 260 mile round trips to have the sight tested during a national lockdown – these are truly unprecdenedted times. The “protetctive ring” this government claimed to throw around care homes is now firmly around Priti Patel. Even during her “apology”, the sinister smirks and lack of empathy was written all over her face. The same Secretary of State who has yet to be fully accountable for illegal meetings with Israeli officials, but hey, perhaps as Musa Okwonga notes, her position as the go between, the gatekeeper for Brexit Britain is the reason for her popularity. The public outrage at the Patel bullying affair has little to do with, as many MPs have stated, her being a successful BAME MP. The frustration and anger really sits at her door because of her lack of empathy, her incompetence, her compulsive lying and sheer arrogance. A sincere apology was never going to be the quick fix option but it could have restored some respect from the situation.
I want to talk about bullying and the legacy of the bullying scandal in Parliament. To hear that Patel was “too short” to bully anyone left me in utter disarray. I think back to the days of seeing a strapping 6ft PE teacher being brought to tears by his Head who was significantly smaller. Bullying is often tacit, covert and rarely in plain sight. A playground bully will rarely throw their weight around when teachers are watching. Bullying can take place in multiple ways and albeit not an exclusive list, I have created this in relation to education settings.
• Inconsistent standards between you and your peers,
• Threats to job security,
• You are left feeling isolated,
• Unrealistic targets set and obstacles at every turn.
• Your ideas and work are publicly criticised,
• Sporadic meetings which give you no time to prepare or gather thoughts,
• Feeling intimidated by senior staff or management,
• Made to feel guilty for taking time out for yourself and your family,
• No confidentiality, the idea that ‘everyone knows my business’
• Gaslighting – your sanity is questioned therefore you’re deemed ‘inept’ in making rational judgments.
Having used this list previously, it is important to reflect and take lessons away from the Priti Patel situation.
Depoliticising the matter
When it was announced that Priti Patel would face no further action, my heart sank. After a torrid academic year where my line manager targeted me using every malicious trick in the book, I found myself feeling her eerie presence again. We only need to Google the statistics or read through the heart breaking thread on Twitter posted by Scott Pughsley, to see how entrenched and widespread bullying is in education. Bullying is a political issue. Our nations leaders should be upholding exemplary professional conduct and stamp out malpractice. What Boris Johnson has done is depoliticise bullying and fail to act decisively to eradicate it from his party. The irony of this happening during Anti-Bullying Week where even the Education Secretary himself posted a anti-bullying message, this just speaks volumes about the two-tiered system of justice and accountability in British society. Some are held accountable, others, well their friends in high places will throw a protective ring around them. The Patel bullying affair has been depoliticised, downplayed and brushed under the carpet setting yet another rancid precedence.
A rancid precedence
So, what type of precedence does the Prime Minister of this country set by failing to sanction a member of his cabinet for allegations of bullying? How would a Head teacher or senior manager in any line of work deal with bullying? Do they back their mates and silence concerns and victims? It was Anti-Bullying Week for crying out loud! Explicitly it is saying that bullying is ok and the victims don’t matter. When I was being bullied, something similar did happen where my Head would repeatedly tell me the perpetrator was, “an outstanding leader and would never do such a thing.” When our experiences are trivialised and or dismissed, what type of precedence is set? We are fully aware, without a shadow of a doubt, that in the current political jungle, it is very much us vs. them. The chasm between rhetoric and reality is enormous and token hashtags or solidarity comments in favour of holidays or significant weeks mean absolutely nothing. Why refer to Anti-Bullying week when your silence towards bullying is actually complicit? A rancid precedence is set. What do we tell our young people? What type of example does this set for our youth? That it is ok to bully as long as you come from a background of socio-economic prestige? It is frightening.
Stop talking about bullying
The number of times I have been labelled as “negative” for referring to my personal experiences of bullying. It can and does sound like a broken record but it’s my story and the story of many, many others. When we shed light on our own experiences, we empower others to do the same. We give light to others and provide them with chance to also voice their concerns. The Priti Patel bullying affair has raised many questions about how we treat one another. Bullying in the workplace has, for so long, remained the unawakened elephant in the room. It does happen and can happen in any walk of our professional or personal lives. I thought, “Not a chance, it will never happen to me.” When I was bullied at work, I was in vertigo and out of sheer fear, silenced. Not having a voice is scary, it hurts. Looking back, I can see the damage that was caused but more adamant than ever that being “negative” often means revealing unspoken truths – we do have an issue with the culture of bullying in education. I will stop talking about bullying when we begin to realign ourselves with exemplary professional standards, unlike our Secretary of State. As educators, we must do better.
The Priti Patel affair has left the majority of us perplexed, shocked but not really that surprised. The culture of bullying in professional organisations isn’t something we can downplay. The saddest and deepest irony of the entire situation is that it unfolded during Anti-Bullying Week where we should be advocating and demonstrating good speech, good actions and good intentions. The victims of bullying are often rendered invisible and the uneasy precedence set by the PM for failing to hold Patel accountability is particularly disturbing.
I still urge anyone who has been bullied to seek support, never allow others to trivialise their hardships and to continue seeking justice. We must honour our stories and continue speaking out. Bullies are hiding behind a Priti disguise.
“Death doesn’t end relationships, it changes them”
– Megan Devine
Love, grief and the endless cost of love.
Although I am not an expert in grief, I know how life looked before and after it . Drawing on Megan Devine’s remarkable book It’s OK that you’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, these are my own reflections five years after losing my Grandfather (Dad/Aba’Jee).
A year of writing passionately and personally, 2020 has been truly unprecedented. I still find myself coming to terms with the privilege of platforms. Today I wanted to write from the heart about something, and more specifically someone close to my heart. It has taken five years to find the strength to write this piece. After spending a lifetime of trying to articulate emotions into words, grief continued to give me writers block. Sometimes words can’t do our feelings any justice, sometimes they can for others. I just hope it finds a fellow griever.
November 15th is a day that I will never forget. As a child, I loved the month of November as winter dawned upon us, as did Christmas. November 2015 changed my entire outlook. There was me, starting my PGCE placement in rural Northamptonshire. I rocked by usual check shirt, knitted-tie and Dr Marten combination. It was time to shine. Preparation, planning and the route to work all mapped out. On Friday November 13th, I received a phone call that I still recall word-for-word. Trembling with fear, I got straight into the car and hastily arrived at the family home which itself felt eerily different. My Grandad had been taken to hospital that morning and the regrets began to flood in. We always shook hands before bed, the night before I had forgotten. So much was said and unsaid. Little did I know that by Sunday he would be taking his last breath in front of me. All of a sudden the world appeared to be a colder place. No one could conceptualise how I felt, many I still consider as close still don’t understand how I feel the rawness of my loss five years on. The trauma of watching someone you love die never disappears. November was never the same again. I was never the same again. It is on anniversaries in particular that social and emotional norms just melt into thin air. Grief is so isolating, lonely and we are often left wondering “am I the only one feeling this way?” Although five years have passed, I still miss you like it was yesterday.
Before losing Dad I had attended dozens of funerals. In the Muslim community, we tend to have a prayer at the Mosque before the person who has passed away is laid to rest. This is often a final opportunity for others to console the family, see the face of the deceased and gather in unity. These moments evoke such powerful and raw emotions but prior to Dad passing away, I would shut them down. I could, and in hindsight I will say it was arrogance and immaturity. I still recall a distant relative dying and I was unmoved. This was an uncertainty, a world that contradicted my happy-go-lucky nature. It went against the normalities and checklists we set ourselves. Any outward expression of emotion that did not neatly fit into society’s expectation, it tends to be negated. You see, hurt changes people. Grief pushes us into a corner but we don’t decide when we can leave that corner.
There remains a paradox. We are either deemed “brave” if we talk about those who have left us or “negative” for holding conversation about our losses. In order for us to appreciate the finer things in life, acknowledging the existence of what causes us pain is a key part of this process. It isn’t bravery, it is basic human emotion – the type that remains misunderstood and badly misjudged. One of the kindest compliments I received is “Shuaib, you express your feeling so well.” I don’t. With grief, just like the rest of us, I am milling around in the dark, I still need guidance and I am lost without Dad. Grief is a bit like a left over meal. It is there, we were able to arbitrarily dip in and out of it but even if we throw it away, that does not deny its existence. I tried so hard to put my grief into some type of petri dish, scientifically and rationally dissect this emotion I had once never come to terms with. Even selecting the words, images and title for this piece was so exhausting. Deciding exactly when to publish it too was beyond difficult. How can I do grief any justice in just one blog?
At various points in my journey, I was told to research the Stages of Grief model which did not comply with how I was feeling. Kind of like a one-size-fits-all lesson plan, it did not differentiate and cater for my needs. In her later years, the founder of this Stages of Grief model, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross regretted ever writing the stages and did not want it to be the universal veneer from which loss is conceptualised. Grief cannot be pigeon-holed, it isn’t predictable and no two people grieve in the same way. When we homogenise the personal lived experiences of others, we oversimplify and thus misunderstand individual stories. Grief is, as Megan Devine tells us, incredibly misunderstood. The emotional illiteracy surrounding loss is pushing those who are grieving further away, trapping them into corners and creating an emotional distance at a time where they need to know someone is there beside them.
Why do you call him ‘Dad’?
In the South-Asian community and I’ll be careful not to stereotype, as a rule of thumb, the extended nuclear family is the norm. Grandparents hold a special and significant place in the family home. Growing up, everyone from aunties to uncles called my Grandad ‘Dad’. So, as his grandson, it fitted, it matched his position and given his place in my heart, being someone’s ‘Dad’ means something. He meant something. So, when I often refer to my Grandad, I, for my own personal reasons, call him ‘Dad’. He never liked the name/tag ‘Grandad’ anyway!
I don’t think words can do him justice. He was well built man with such strength. As children, we would sit in awe of him doing DIY and bragged that someday we would muscles the same size as his. Dad was simple, shy, humble and kind. He didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, he lost his father when he was just 10 or 12. After years of working in markets in our native Kashmir, he moved to Britain to build a better life from himself and his family back home. To this day I don’t for one second believe he ever wanted to settle here but it happened. A fiercely friendly and jovial man, he gave my siblings and I the most wonderful childhood. He used his pension to pay for my first car. Dad used to shop for our neighbours, check up on vulnerable members of our community and, always had a new joke to match his beautiful smile. We knew him as ‘Dad’ but everyone else called him ‘Hajji’. This is the highest rank in the community. His simplicity was his sophistication. His kindness was his USP. The slow-walking, Punjabi-talking, Dad loved his sweet dishes. If there was cake, Dad was there! Clutching onto his Afghan scarf, he owned few positions but wore his heart on his sleeve. If he spoke, you listened. He said it like it is, never sugar-coated the facts and the outpouring of emotion when he died was so moving. was Above all else, he loved his family.
He was the first to hold me as a newborn baby. Grandma said, “he delayed his retirement because he found a new love – his grandsons.” Of course, the magnitude of all his sacrifices I was unaware of until he left us. I never got the chance to say, thank you. There was no fairy-tale ending but I take some peace in the fact he was around his family as his time drew near. Ultimately he preached the notion of having a ‘small circle but a big heart’. This is now my motto. Dad also once said, ”we are all one misfortune from losing everything we have. If you can’t help, don’t ridicule others.”
Between us, I know 15/11/15 is not our last meeting. So much has changed but my love for you hasn’t died, it grew stronger with distance which is one of the saddest contradictions of loss. The unbreakable bond we shared has left me with unconditional grief. We will see each other again, Insha’Allah. I love you. May the Almighty grant you the highest place in Jannath ul’Firdous. Ameen.
Five years, six lessons.
Five years is a long time but also nothing compared to the lifetime of joy, happiness, love and challenges I saw with Dad. I have six non-exhaustive points of reflection. Don’t get me wrong, grief is crippling. It punctures your heart and hold no prisoners. Managing that grief is what is key for us grievers. For me, no one comes out the other end of their grief journey the same but how can they? And also, why should they? It’s ok to miss someone who gave you so much to remember. It’s ok that’s it’s not ok.
Grief illiteracy is real.
We don’t live in a grief-literate culture. It is that simple. Grief is made to feel like a burden, something we should feel guilty for expressing. Grief is threatening. Even when we are meant to be ‘throwing kindness around like it’s confetti’, society is not sensitive to loss. Grief is a universal emotion, it is not spoken about universally. I do not believe this is specific to Britain but loss that remains a taboo, a conversation that is rarely aired and those who dare to openly share their experiences are often shouted down, dismissed or labelled as “negative.” This is because, not only do people not understand the gravity of your loss, but they are also never taught how to either. Grief is not something that is taught in schools, but rather it is a lesson that is learnt through the most heart-breaking experience. I recall group counselling sessions where I would try my best to revel and understand the grief of others but I could not. I could not see the “bigger picture” because I was consumed with my own emotions. Again, we don’t live in a grief literate culture because in a time of instantaneous communications, the veneer of “keep calm and carry on” remains as prevalent as ever. Grief is threatening. It challenges the rather banal expectations that we have a “stiff upper lip.” Even during my most basic interactions, grief would be written all over my face but very few people could read these tacit codes. Those who could, they understood and a mutual understanding of our losses connected us in such a significant way. To those who are grieving, we don’t know much different. These are such personal emotions that only a handful of people can approach in a sensitive manner. Not everyone will understand your grief and that is ok too. However, those who do remind is it’s safe to talk about someone who is gone, these people do exist, they are incredible and they have felt pain just like you.
Not everyone deserves to hear about your grief
When Dad died, I had to tell everyone. I would slip it into every conversation. The whole world needed to know his name. I would tear up easily and share personal information about Dad to anyone who spared an ear. I wore the pieces of my shattered heart on my sleeve. Revealing a broken heart does not mean your audience can piece it back together. No tannoy announcement was going to bring Dad back but I didn’t care! The world was my campsite, I wanted everyone to sit around the fire and listen to me tell them how much I missed my Dad. I knew the world could not feel my hurt which pushed me further away from others. I was desperate find someone who felt the same way. Someone else who had lost someone they loved more than themselves. I would search far and wide for every opening to drop in, “My Dad passed away.” This was often met with side-ways looks and silence. You see, not everyone has the emotional competence to understand your grief and that is ok too. When we lose someone we love, we are looking for an open heart and a kind ear to listen rather than clichèd Pinterest quotes to be read aloud to us or pinged to us via WhatsApp. I was abhorred when a fellow PGCE student told me she had gone out partying the day after her Dad had died. “How could she?” continued to play on my mind. That is how she dealt with her own grief. We are all different and all of us feel things differently but not everyone can just ‘get’ grief. It is a personalised lived experience. You cannot get anyone to feel your grief with you because just like our victories and our loses, there are our own. With grief, everyone cares and then no one cares. You go from being surrounded by fellow mourners to being alone. These days I rarely ever share personal memories or stories about Dad because I am still trying to make sense of his life and legacy. This was always my own loss and only until I realised that I must begin a new chapter without someone who I could never image even beginning a new book with – that is when it dawned upon me. My Dad was a special, kind and loving soul. No words could do his memory justice and that’s ok too so long as lives on in the hearts of those he inspired. Not everyone deserves to hear about your grief as the right ones, they will listen carefully and support unconditionally. These people do exist, trust me. It’s finding them, that’s the hard part.
It comes in waves
Grief does come in waves. Some days we are swimming merrily against the tide and on others, we are drowning. As loss is so personal, we never truly know how others feel, their anxieties, fears, insecurities and challenges. I still remember having a fantastic day at work where I had taught well and left with a huge smile of satisfaction on my face. On the drive home it would hit me that I could not share my successes with Dad. Other days I would visit the local Mosque and purely at random, I would glance back and I would feel his presence. I feel it when I pray and thus praying attains more emotional significance. The waves of grief can come in all forms and sizes. Some days we are surfing brilliantly, other days we are a shipwreck. I found it impossible not to look at photos, find new cues and spot something different each time I saw something with Dad in it. I asked neighbours, friends and everyone if they had any photos or family videos, I just wanted to see my Dad. I wanted to know what others thought of him to help validate my own views and place myself in his shoes. I was obsessed. Then there would come days I would just process losing him in my own quiet way. When Dad died, I was shipwrecked, I was drowning in a combination of heartbreak, regret, guilt, sadness and shock. Five years on, I still feel those emotions but his memory and all that floats around me, be they photos, letters, memoirs or stories, they float around me, giving me hope that this is just another wave. Although I hang onto a piece of that wreckage from that shipwreck, keeping my head above the water every time is a reminder to me that there is so much more living to do and so much still to honour.
The quotes and clichés
“I can’t image how you must be feeling.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“They are in a better place now.”
“It gets easier with time.”
All four of these messages were sent to me hours after Dad passed away. My eyes were blurry, my heart was heavy and my memory was hazy. Till this day I still failed to understand what those four messages meant. These were awfully reductive things to say to someone who had watched someone they loved pass away. I felt helpless as Dad died in my arms and as the family read prayers. I was in a state of shock. The most powerful person I ever knew was dying and there was not a thing I could do to stop it. When people began to send me quotes too, I got frustrated as they all had some tangible form of progress in them. I didn’t feel like I was making progress, the clichés weren’t working. These quotes were white noise and escapism for others to not fully understand the enormity of my loss. They were a neutral position. All I could think was “How can anyone be neutral? Why won’t you listen?” Again, not everyone can understand your grief which is ok, they aren’t expected too. Until you have felt the full gravity of a loss, you can never understand what grief is, let alone how to console a griever. You will find your own way and naturally gravitate towards those who understand. In Islam, we do firmly believe that this life is a test and that we shall all someday return to our creator. I continue to draw strength in my faith and with the current pandemic, I wonder if Dad, who was the most sociable person ever, could have coped with lockdowns or the incompetence of the government. Hindsight is a beautiful thing and I was thinking selfishly. I wanted more time with him but I had 23 years living under his loving guidance. Some people don’t ever have someone who loves them as unconditionally as Dad loved me. My grief still exists but we must remember that love is not measured by time, it is measured in moments. Those tangible accomplishments we all look for may not exist but spending time to mend your heart and gain peace of mind rarely attracts outward expressions. Again, that is ok. Keep healing, loving and mending.
Loss helps us connect
This sounds like an oxymoron, right? Grief connects broken hearts. When Dad died, part of me also left this world. Our connection was always powerful, moving and strong. Along the way I found that people could not comprehend the complexity of how I felt. Many joined my journey and then left but that is ok too. Losing Dad broke my exterior walls of resistant which cemented together by a combination of toxic masculinity and inexperience. This grief journey enables me to spot a fellow griever from a mile off which is unique gift. We carry the weight of our experiences everywhere we go. In essence, everyone has emotional baggage. It is just the case that some carry it better than others, whereas some struggle with their load. We all have baggage. The early weeks after Dad died, the messages from friends and colleagues stopped. There was an eerie feeling that I had somehow “snapped out of” my grief and everything could go back to normal. These friends and colleagues never once asked how I felt after the initial few days. For them, my episode of grief had ended but for me, the journey only just began. I’ve met people who I have really liked but when we talk about families, the awkward silence begins when I refer to Dad. Our stories are very powerful, they can move mountains. Making connections is not about suppressing who we are but rather embracing ourselves, our feelings and yes, our grief. Grief sits with us at the table and that is ok too. Loss does help us connect and reconnect with ourselves and others. We find commonalities with others through our loss, strike up conversations with fellow grievers and this helps us on our own journey. I remember reading Rio Ferdinand’s Thinking Out Loud: Love, Grief and Being Mum & Dad. Rio was an absolute monster on the football pitch. Fearless, brave, resilient, I could go on. Rio lost his wife, Rebecca, to cancer and struggled badly. Just reading his own account of grief, I could resonate, understand and empathise. Losing someone creates such a terrible pain and huge hole in our lives but also changes our outlook on life. I found myself connecting with others, with myself and my beliefs, all of which are very much a work in progress. With all the dark days where we struggle to get out of bed, and I can assure you there are many of them, loss softens the heart. I find it impossible to understand why Dad was so kind to those who openly disrespected him but I now I know. He once said, “the dogs pass on by but there will always be places for the humans, always.” The tragic beauty of losing someone we love is we only appreciate their existence when they are no longer with us. It’s what we do when they are gone and the connections we make in their honour, those last an eternity.
Self-care is everything
As Megan Devine reminds us, grief is not merely emotional or psychological, it is also biological and physiological also. Weeks and months after Dad died, I found myself unable to sleep or eat. Grief attacks your immune system, appetite and the feeling of loss is tiring, exhausting even. Our personal and professional relationships suffer. Although I could no longer see Dad, hear his voice or speak to him, the true connection with those we love never dies. Our loved one may have passed away but we are still here. A griever tends to punish themselves and live in a world of self-denial, regret, heartbreak or a combination of all of these. I wouldn’t laugh too loud or smile too hard because I thought Dad wasn’t there to laugh or smile, so why should I? It is so consuming because when we deny ourselves the subtle joys of life, we lose so much. Dad would always smile and laugh, always. Simply dropping these traits like a bad habit did not honour him in any way. Such is grief and the juxtaposition of emotions it brings. It is unfair. It is shit. Life can feel as though it is stuck in reverse, that everyone else has “moved on” but you are still struggling. Self-care cannot be corporate packaged or purchased off a shelf. It is not something you can gaze at through a shop window. Self-care is personal, it requires reflection and individualised attention for our basic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. When you are grieving, recovery and self-care is not about just moving on or part-taking in middle-class pastimes like Yoga. Everyone heals in their own time, we must always remember that. Recovery and self-care are thus so important. Recovery is about learning to accept and understand exactly what grief is. In our often emotionless transactional society, we are taught a “stiff upper lip” or to “keep calm and carry on” is the veneer required to address our problems. When you someone close dies, we forget to eat, shower, take care of our basic needs and I often found myself so emotionally exhausted. We neglect our basic needs, often creating a hierarchy of these needs. What we really want is to ask more questions, learn more about the ones who have died and just more time with them. Grief can do this and self-care is so important in helping us find proactive steps to heal. Whatever works for you, I pray you find it. Self-care is so important and the ones we have lost would never want to see us suffer. Please look after yourself.
Megan Devine reminds us that we cannot fix grief but we can listen right here, right now. No matter who the author is, everyone has their own story to tell about loss but words have finite stages, grief doesn’t. Our grief never fully heals as when a heart is broken, it’s pieces cannot be placed back together in the original form. Instead, those pieces settle in new places and that is ok too. I just hope society begins to see grief as any other wound that needs tending to. No one chose to be a griever, loss chooses us, often at the most unexpected times.
My sincerest apologies that I have not provided any practical steps forwards but we are all making these painful strides to heal. When I hear of people losing loved ones or watching funerals via Zoom, it’s heart-breaking. I can’t give you answers amidst your pain, what I can offer if a smile amidst the rain. With this pandemic also, my heart goes out to anyone who has lost someone they love. Although I can’t provide you the answers to your grief, I can signpost you to help and lend an ear. Ultimately, when I get flashbacks of that cold November day, that’s all I ever wanted too. Someone to listen, to be patient, to remind me it was ok to remember my Dad. Please don’t ever feel as though you are alone or a burden. The life of those we lose deserves to be celebrated, cherished and treasured. Never forget that and never forget them. The world may never understand the gravity of your loss but that is on them. You should never underestimate the love you shared with those who are now gone. That will never die as Rumi reminds us, “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”
Sometimes I feel like I am full of contradictions about grief but that’s it, grief is a contradictory emotion. As my favourite Rapper, Loyle Carner asks in his wonderful poem BFG, “must we love so much?” Grief is the true and endless cost of love, Loyle. Grief is the true and endless cost of love. I would just like to finish off with a poem I wrote for Dad. I hope you can find peace within these words too. Next Sunday will be tough.
Thank you for reading.
For additional support, the following links and sites offer some great advice and practical steps forward.
How the announcement to go ahead with GCSE and A-level exams may impact on our disadvantaged students? A critical analysis.
Last night I wrote about the British obsession with examinations but inadvertently unearthed something deeper in my reflections. This has been a truly remarkable year and not just in the world of education. 2020 will go down as the year where we had the most sustained dialogue about the attainment of disadvantaged children. However, the rhetoric could hardly be any further from the reality in providing equality of opportunity for our young people.
Yesterday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson gave the green light for the 2021 GCSE and A-level examinations to go ahead. After six months of remote learning, schools up and down the country are hastily trying to ensure pupils can plug gaps in knowledge. These gaps were inevitable but as is the case in education, there is no place to hide and no respite for teachers. As policy makers try to balance the economy and public health, teachers are on the back foot but our are most vulnerable and disadvantaged don’t have a foot to stand on at all.
Before I began to write this blog, a close friend said to me, “Shuaib, not another article about disadvantaged children.” He was referring to my piece called Enemy of the State in May. But it does feel like, apart from Marcus Rashford and teachers, disadvantaged children have been left stranded. Whilst our national treasure, Marcus campaigns to feed the neediest, we fight to give them a seat at the table.
The strain placed on teachers with Williamson’s announcement yesterday cannot go understated. Alongside the rising number of COVID cases in educational settings, the true practicalities of compensating for six months of remote learning by pushing exams three weeks further is beyond outrageous. Yet, as true professionals, teachers will plough on and put in the graft until the inevitable U-turn. Until then, teachers and disadvantaged children remain in the line of fire.
Yesterday the DfE have openly stated that, “students will have extra time to prepare for exams next summer.” Gavin Williamson later Tweeted, “Exams are the fairest way of judging performance. We’re giving students and teachers the certainty that exams will go ahead in 2010 with more time to prepare plus support from the COVID Catch Up Fund.” The ideological fascination with high-stakes testing and assessment retains it stranglehold on teaching and learning here in Britain. However, it must also be said that after the exam shambles this past summer, perhaps allowing our students to just sit exams really is the fairest way to allocate grades, as clearly the algorithms worked a treat! My concern with yesterdays announcement really is about equity and equality of opportunity. These three concerns are not exhaustive but an opportunity for us to critically reflect.
Misunderstanding and depolitcisation of disadvantaged children
Inequalities in society are a political as well as a social issue. This idea that education is the sole force for equalising inequalities and that meritocracy is ubiquitous must be questioned and analysed. Britain is a grossly unequal society and report after report illustrate the chasm between the wealthy and deprived. 2020 is the year where we begin to openly discuss about the role of schools and teachers in helping equalise the disadvantages for our most deprived children. Context is key. Do we ignore the brutal cuts to education funding and a decade of austerity where annually £12 billion has been taken from our public sector and frontline services to support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable? Gavin Williamson has said that exams are the fairest way to assess progress but does this empty rhetoric have practical groundings? The 10,000 laptops that were promised to our disadvantages learners are still missing and apart from the British tradition of throwing money at the problem, what has been done at the grassroots level to challenge inequalities? This idea that disadvantaged children exist in some sort of political vacuum is nebulous, misleading and depoliticising education at a time where the state has its ideological stranglehold over most aspects of state education. Disadvantaged children do not walk into school at the tender age of 4/5 and a decade later cleanse themselves of all inequalities and experiences that have shaped their life chances. Inequality just like education is political. The ability to heat and freeze discussions and use certain groups to thrust ideological stances is a pillar of privilege and platform. If there was any real effort to make education a real equalising force for society, then socio-economic disparity would be contested. With the Social Mobility Commission estimating that 5.2 million children will be living in poverty by 2022, Britain’s deliberate and ideological understanding of disadvantaged children will only continue.
We know that on average, children who are entitled to Free Schools Meals (FSM) underachieve compared to their more affluent peers. Even as former Education Secretary Michael Gove once rather crassly put it, “rich, thick kids’ achieve much more than poor clever ones.” This layer of disadvantage is historical and through decades of misplaced policymaking, it remains somewhat expected or a comfortable fact in British education. Richard Tawney even referred to social class as the ‘hereditary curse’ of the English education system and this was in 1931. Sociologists Jackson and Marsden wrote about the class-specific role of education to police and pacify the disadvantaged and educate and liberate the most affluent. Despite our education having connotations of social mobility, social class inequalities have polarised Britain, with schools being a microcosm of wider society. The double disadvantage includes what could be referred to as the COVID-induced disadvantage. Sure, exams will take place but is it really a fair process? Some regions across the country are facing stringent local lockdowns, student and staff absences are high as people self-isolate. This entrenches inequality even further. Our pupils have missed six months of schooling in its full-time capacity but for the most disadvantaged who may not have access to the internet thus remote learning facilities, therefore this disadvantaged is doubled. Historical disadvantages could be challenged by radical changes to policies but don’t hold your breath. The COVID disadvantage could be challenged by policy and providing adequate resources, timer and space for these disadvantaged children to adequately catch-up, progress and blossom. A three extension to exams is like expecting Pupil Premium to equalise generations of inequalities. This is absurd. We cannot address the post-COVID inequalities without unpacking and tackling those prior to the pandemic.
The final thought I had following yesterday’s announcement was actually a comment directed at me. I was told to “remain apolitical” and “just get on with it”. Apparently questioning political policies were against “mainstream edu-narratives” whatever that means. It is 2020, the year where we have conversations that matter, where we become comfortable with the uncomfortable and reflect in a deeper and more profound way. When did it ever become “political” to want to provide young people the best opportunity to succeed? We wear the weight of what we hear and seem – our experiences shape us. Whilst children walk into my classroom hungry and whilst little attempts to create a fairer society are in place, “apolitical” helps none of these children. Someone even had the audacity to say, “we are fed up with hearing about disadvantaged children.” I am fed up and exhausted with policies that fail to scratch the surface, also that my fellow professions being scapegoated for society’s evils and the mass fence-sitting and selective populism when it comes to dialogue about poverty, inequality, deprivation and disadvantage. We have to always keep in mind the contextual factors that make up our classrooms. The fact that we can track and trace these inequalities before the first bell hits. Even if we don’t challenge them so openly, I know my fellow teaching professionals will do so in their daily practice. We have been helping our learners ‘catch-up’ and make up ground before COVID and we will carry on doing so until a cure is found. For me, I will never stop talking about disadvantaged children. This is a cohort I was I once part of and an intellectual world I once inhabited. A man in a suit could never conceptualise let alone compensate for these hardships. With platform comes privilege and these disadvantaged children don’t need saviours, they need their voice heard. Time to scream at the top of out lungs like a siren. Do we develop selective amnesia as schools reopening and forget the antics of the media and politicians towards teachers?
The global pandemic has put teachers on the back foot and the announcement that GCSE and A-level exams will go ahead must be carefully considered. No one wants another algorithm shambles but after six months of remote learning, three weeks are not sufficient for teachers and learners. The wider structure of the education system needs to negate from the ideological moorings of high-stakes testing and reintroduce some alternative form of assessment. We may never see coursework return nor will teacher discretion through CAGs ever be fully respected, but with time ticking away, a DfE U-turn is definitely still on the cards. A three week delay to exams of simply plastering over the enormous chasms and canyons in education right now. These are wounds that need healing by taking teachers and students out the line of fire during such unprecedented times.
Are exams the fairest way to assess student progress? Do we place their futures in the hands of Gavin Williamson after the summer exam shambles or just keep calm and carry on? The lesser of the two evils is the latter which is a damning indictment of the educational policy making that has perpetuated and entrenched inequalities. It is shocking. We have deeper questions and reflections as educators, includingif exams are even the most effective measure of a child’s progress? People in this country have the uncanny ability to be the voice of those they have no social attachment to. It’s frightening.
A final note on this disadvantaged children narrative. It has been peddled downstream but avoided the rapids. Until we consider wider contextual factors, structures and policies that have caused, maintained and sustained disadvantage, we are dangerously simplifying and depoliticising a debate about inequality. Disadvantaged children have been trying to ‘catch up’ for several decades, it is time we provide their teachers the support and guidance to take us out the line of fire.